August 28, 2013

Why Breaking Bad Is Good For You

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Everybody’s talking about Breaking Bad these days. Whether you’re speculating as to what these final five episodes have in store or just smiling to yourself at the continued significance of Saul Goodman’s bodyguard Huell, you are also looking back on five seasons of unpredictable and unprecedented change: in tones, cinematography, wardrobes and, above all, character. The evolution of Walter White, from impotent schlub to the all-powerful Heisenberg, separates Breaking Bad from everything else on television today, and it can actually teach us something about ourselves.

Provided you are caught up with last Sunday’s episode, “Confessions” (for obvious reasons, the uninitiated should find themselves to the door), let us think back for a moment. What really turned you onto Breaking Bad? For the young male viewer — speaking from my own experience, here — a likely response would be one of the many badass Heisenberg moments that populate seasons one and two, like when Walt blows up Tuco’s lair with fulminated mercury or grumbles, “Stay out of my territory,” in the faces of two amateur meth cooks. In the latter scene, the TV on the Radio song “DLZ” blasts as the camera crawls in on a triumphant Walt, who just scared away the weak, scuttling doppelgangers of himself and Jesse Pinkman. Vince Gilligan and co. definitely want us to relish this cathartic moment, the moment when Walt locks his meek pre-Heisenberg persona into the past. And, come on, how cool is that song?

While seasons three, four and five have also supplied some blunt, gratifying moments — “I am the one who knocks!”, “Say my name,” “I won.” — the darkness of Heisenberg has devoured the conscience of a once-conflicted and careful family man. What started with allowing Jane, Jesse’s girlfriend, to die at the end of season two escalated with the murder of our beloved Mike, the poisoning of a child and, most recently, his game-changing “confession” tape that shifts the blame for all his criminal activity onto his brother-in-law, Hank. Worse yet, he has turned his wife, Skyler, into a professional criminal and a mortal enemy of her sister, though that look on her face in “Confessions,” as she sits in her carwash office and stares into space, processing what she has become, suggests she will make a move of her own very soon. As actress Anna Gunn addressed in a thoughtful New York Times op-ed, there is a lot of hostility out there for her character, most of it unjust, but I think even that loud contingency of haters should have softened with this latest round of episodes. No longer is she aloof and impeding every move Walt makes, and she seems worse off for it.

But how do you feel about Walt right now? I’m pretty sure Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston intend for you to feel pretty disgusted with his actions, particularly as he continues to alienate and strong-arm Jesse, the show’s corrupted moral center. Even if that confession tape hit you out of left field as brilliant, you are admiring Walt’s intricate plotting more than the consequences of said plotting, no? Walt continues to surprise us in novel, cerebral ways, which is a welcome contrast to surprising us with his shameless disregard for human life. Labeling Walt as an “antihero” is giving him too much credit, or the wrong kind of it. He is a bad guy with reasons, many of them human and easy to sympathize with, and many more selfish and unforgivable. Walter White may be the most fleshed-out villain in television history, in part because of the show’s satisfying writing and Cranston’s indomitable performance, but most of all because he still is, extraordinarily, the protagonist. Hank, Skyler and Jesse make for much more sympathetic characters and human beings, and since they are all at odds with Walt, it is only natural to side with them and not the badass father who pulled us into Albuquerque ages ago.

Of course, Breaking Bad is still a work of fiction. You can feel however you like about Walt, Hank, Skyler, Jesse, Junior, Marie and Todd (although you’re only allowed to unconditionally love Saul and Huell, according to me). They’re just characters, played by actors who have the ear of every studio and agent in Hollywood right now. But you wouldn’t be watching this show without some emotional investment, right? For those still rooting for Walt to evade justice and kill anyone in his way, hasn’t his shtick worn thin? Hasn’t the story dedicated too much time on the suffering of Hank, Marie, Skyler and Jesse caused, directly or indirectly, by Walt to let our main man off the hook? Gilligan admitted himself that he no longer likes Walt on the first episode of AMC’s companion show, Talking Bad, summing up his character’s moral status with six words: “He’s kind of a bad dude.”

So, to try and put a lid on these thoughts, I would say that Breaking Bad is good for you because it makes you question all that you have seen, thought and felt before. A movie like The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense does those first two things, banking on a big plot twist at the end to shatter whatever story you had been building in your head thus far. But Breaking Bad pushes it one crucial step further, slowly and methodically morphing a hero with a noble cause into a monster with no cause but his own. Walt’s cool factor has almost entirely dissipated into a nauseous, toxic unease whenever he’s on-screen, quietly threatening the lives of characters we used to disregard but now find ourselves deeply invested in. As wicked awesome as “Stay out of my territory” was and still is, are we not watching a man sign a deal with the devil, sealing his fate and assuring the assured, painful destruction of everyone he once cared about? Walt may sport one sweet goatee, but that’s pretty messed up.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos